Action breeds knowledge,” said Paul Mumba, an inclusive education consultant specializing in the policy regimen of Zambia. Last fall, his signature declaration served as the nucleus for Building Capacity for Inclusion in Africa, a 15-day expedition spearheaded by Mobility International USA (MIUSA).
According to Mumba, many parents and educators throughout Zambia believe children with disabilities have neither the ability nor the right to receive a public education. This social stigma perpetuates barriers throughout the region—barriers that are particularly damaging to the nation’s youth.
While a number of activists are leading the charge for grassroots social change in Zambia, no legislation is being enacted to curb discrimination against this disenfranchised group, and most Zambians remain unfamiliar with the severity of the problem.
To tear down barriers for Zambians with disabilities, members of the National Youth Leadership Network joined forces with the Children in Need Network (CHIN), which served as our host organization in the region. Our group included Lou Enge, MIUSA Project Specialist for International Development and Disability, Linda Shepard, CEO of Parents Educating Parents and Professionals, and myself.
Composed of a range of non-governmental, communitybased, and faith-based organizatons, CHIN provides a variety of services, from educational to nutritional program support, to child-abuse prevention services, to skills training. As part of our collaboration, CHIN sought technical assistance and information on how to make its facilities, programs, and services more accessible to the public. Staff members requested education and training to correct the misconception that a medical background is necessary to respond to needs of people with disabilities. They were also given models of programs and services that include and empower people with disabilities.
Additionally, parents were provided the supports and resources necessary to convene as an emerging social body, and young people with and without disabilities were brought together as an inclusive social force. Finally, professionals and allies assembled to draft policy-change recommendations for CHIN, and for cadres of the Zambian Ministry of Education.
The primary intention of our efforts was to support a quest for social change on policy and organizational levels throughout Zambia. But as a biproduct of this process, we found we were also directly impacting individual lives. The following are some highlights from our itinerary:
DAY ONE: We explore the concept of inclusive education in Zambia. To date, children with disabilities are virtually excluded from classrooms. Mumba, our co-facilitator from Zambia, shares his belief that all children are entitled to an equal education:”We call our children disabled without taking the time to understand what they need in order to learn,” he says. “We are the ones who need to learn so we can really serve the child. The children bear the brunt of the feeling of failure when, in reality, the children don’t fail—the teachers fail.”
DAY THREE: We continue visiting schools in very small sub-communities outside of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. We learn that, only months ago, the headmaster of a school stoned a mother because she sought enrollment for her son with albinism. The headmaster said he was offended the woman would even make such a request. In the end, the mother, who by this point was experiencing seizures and intense headaches, was charged with a social offense, while the headmaster received no charge against him. It was the woman’s sixth attempt to find a school for her son.
DAY SIX: We bring parents—some of whom lead non-profit organizations, and some of whom are interacting with each other for the first time—together with other parents of children with disabilities. Topics include the availability of public resources, as well as efforts to break stereotypes. Mothers speak of how some children with disabilities spend their lives living in the corners of rooms, seldom if ever going out into the community, because of the risk to the child and the family.
DAY SEVEN: We visit a Zambian school at which a community event is held. Organizational leaders and political representatives unite to exchange information and learn about new concepts of disability that are rooted in personal pride, rather than in medical reference. While formal communications are rewarding, hugs and handshakes at the end of the day exemplify real progress. A passion for change is powerfully present among these individuals. It is as though we have rewound the clocks to the years preceding the disability rights movement in the States. Change has not yet arrived, but the ideas and the motivation are plentiful.
DAYS EIGHT AND NINE: A two-day policy development venture breeds success. Representatives of various venues draft CHIN’s first policy on inclusion. In a total of eight hours, approximately 30 people devise a policy proposal to implement full inclusion within the organization. The group plans to propose this policy addition to other organizations and to representatives of Zambian ministries.
DAY ELEVEN: We assist children in undergoing evaluation for disability supports and assistive devices. Resources for such devices are different from those to which we are accustomed in the United States: supportive equipment is made with basic wood and cardboard materials, and some wheelchairs are made with recycled bike tires. It is wonderful to watch children be fitted for such supports for the first time. They visibly transform in a matter of moments, each suddenly experiencing the feeling of full independence.
DAY THIRTEEN: Youth power! Teenagers with and without disabilities come together to talk about a world of inclusion for young people. Conversations focus on radio shows and peer support at school, and anti-bullying skits and songs about pride express the priorities of the youth. These young leaders are evidently visionary thinkers who speak of ways to break down social exclusion, not merely by theory, but by practice.
DAY SIXTEEN: A day centered on the importance of community. In such a short period, we’ve come to establish alliances with individuals who experience struggles similar to those of us on the other side of the world. The feelings of partnership and connection are strong. It is an amazing confirmation that individuals are at the heart of social change and community building. Individuals who, only 10 days ago, heard about disability pride for the first time, are now practicing it. Those who understand the concept of social struggle can collaborate to create positive power.
DAY NINETEEN: Our final day of meetings is accompanied by the stinging sense of separation at this visit’s conclusion. My “home country” gives me so many rights and so many opportunities that my new brothers and sisters of Zambia also deserve. Why is it that I should be so lucky while they still battle oppression? I pause for a moment to capture the image of the local school in which I stand, when a mother puts her hand on my shoulder. “Thank you,” she whispers. Our eyes meet and we look at one another with a calm silence. “Thank you,” I reply. We smile, and she walks away.
As Mumba taught us at the beginning of this experience, “Action breeds knowledge.” The actions exhibited throughout this journey are symbolic, preliminary steps to many more that need to take place if a fully inclusive international community is to be created.
DR. SICHAMBA CHARLES, NATIONAL BOARD SECRETARY, CHILDREN IN NEED NETWORK (CHIN): “We have contributed to policy making in this country with great strides. CHIN has a position in our government to contribute to policy change, and we have been challenged with policy development. But the efforts through this program will allow for the creation of a policy that will surely be adopted with no objection. I envision that, one year from now, this policy will be circulated within the Zambian Ministry of Education with particular attention given to children with disabilities. It will serve as a way for all people to see the importance of such inclusive measures.”
PASTOR STEPHEN C. BWALYA, DIR., WONS MINISTRIES INTERNATIONAL: “So many people [with disabilities] are relying on individuals from many social realms to come together on their behalf. This is important because, while I appreciate the efforts of these professionals, many of the people with disabilities in our country have been left out. Now we are coming together—people with disabilities and people without— to equally represent our community. So many people will benefit from these humbling efforts.”
REV. AARON J. CHILUNJIKA, DIR., CHISOMO DROP-IN CENTER, FULL PROOF MISSION: “There is growing knowledge in our community around disability needs, and we have a growing understanding of what services we need to best support all youth in our community. We have lots of work before us, but I have a vision that these efforts will move from paper to community reality. It will take commitment, unity and financial resources. All of these things are available. We just need to use our experiences to bring them together.”
PAUL MUMBA, SCHOOL IN-SERVICE COORDINATOR, INDEPENDENT INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION CONSULTANT: “Working with these individuals has added value to the whole concept of inclusive education in [Zambia]. Whether the results will be seen in rural schools or national government, it is invigorating to see how truly inclusive community services could work. Looking forward, I see this to be an example of real progress.
ROSEMARY M. MWEWA, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CEREBRAL PALSY ASSOCIATION OF ZAMBIA: “One of our biggest challenges is the incapacitation of people with disabilities brought about by the general society, not by people with disabilities themselves. We need additional resources for community involvement, family support, respite care, and transportation. People must accept that disability comes into anyone’s life at any time. Disability associates itself with any family of any economic status.”
ASTRIDA MWILA KUMDA, PROJECT COORDINATOR, ZAMBIA ASSOCIATION OF PARENTS FOR CHILDREN WITH DISABILITIES: “As a mother of a child with disabilities, my aim is to change the way community thinks about disability. My child has the same rights of any other child; my 11-year-old son deserves the same respect. Children may not always be able to speak for themselves, in the traditional sense, but that is when it becomes our responsibility to speak on their behalf, and I am doing that for my child and for other children of Zambia.”
BISWELL MWENYA, STAFF OFFICER, ZAMBIA MINISTRY OF HEALTH: “Too often people with disabilities are forbidden from participating in society. We may say that policies are essential, but they are no good without actions. We must work together to achieve this greater end. For anything to be implemented, there must be hard work, and we are ready to do that for ourselves and for those less represented.”
MUTEMA RICHARD, HEAD MASTER, JATISHA SCHOOL FOR ORPHANS AND VULNERABLE CHILDREN: “It is time for us to begin changing the way people have been thinking for centuries. Children with disabilities are valuable to our schools. They need education, but they provide education as well. If we are seeking ways for our communities to be more self-sufficient, we must allow all people the ability to contribute to this cause, including those with disabilities.”
YVONNE ZIMBA, YOUTH EMPOWERMENT SPECIALIST, CHILDREN IN NEED NETWORK (CHIN): “We are working to create a new environment within CHIN as well as within Zambia. People with disabilities were cast aside for many years. We are now banding together to create a new, and strong, and powerful community. Our allies—countries like the United States—have done the same thing before us. That is why we turn to such allies for direction and support. We have faith that we will be able to create an equal society in our country, as well.”
by Betsy Valnes — Executive Director of the National Youth Leadership Network
Mobility International USA miusa.org